When The Exorcist was first released, Pauline Kael opined, in her New Yorker review, that the film was the best recruiting poster for the Jesuit order since Going My Way. There is more than a grain of truth to her statement, given how cool all the priests are in the film, but there is more. As many critics have pointed out, the film has a rather reactionary streak: after all, it isn’t hard to see the film as a nightmare depiction of female sexuality, presenting it as something monstrous that must be contained at all costs. And after all, what parent hasn’t, at some point, envisioned the teenage years as a form of demonic possession, with their sweet little angel transformed by evil forces. So here’s a film that confirms to them that, yep, the offspring’s misbehaviour isn’t normal, but evil. It is this side of The Exorcist that is, perhaps, being parodied by Beyond the Door. It is certainly being exploited by today’s entry in the demonic possession sweepstakes, The Antichrist (1974).
As was the case with Beyond the Door, the possessee is an adult, the disabled daughter of a well-to-do family who feels altogether too close to her father. Her possession begins in a sequence that raises the lurid to spectacular levels, as she hallucinates a Satanic orgy, complete with a truly appalling bit of business with a goat that will nauseate some viewers and reduce others to hysterical laughter. Once the demon starts his work, along with the expected vomiting, levitation and telekinesis, the victim becomes a sexual predator, and the incest theme becomes increasingly overheated. Meanwhile, Mel Ferrer (as the pater familias), Arthur Kennedy (as his sibling priest) and Alida Valli (a few years away from her sinister turns in Suspiria and Inferno, here playing the loyal maid) do their best to retain their dignity.
Quite apart from its shameless (and thus hugely entertaining) prurience, The Antichrist is interesting for presenting The Exorcist‘s themes at their most naked. Fear of female sexuality? Writ large. Paralyzing terror of social change? Explicitly articulated by Kennedy. And the vision of the Catholic church that we get here is hardly the medium cool of Friedkin’s film. Rather, it is a cold, unfriendly, rather forbidding version of faith that is on display here. In fact, the opening scene of the film, showing the screaming, convulsing pilgrims at a shrine, is so disturbing that the film seems to be suggesting that there isn’t much to choose from between God and the Devil. Furthermore, the route by which the heroine and her ancestress (revealed though hypnotic past-life regression) turn to Satan suggests that the Church might well be responsible for creating the demons it seeks to exorcise. But these ideas remain undeveloped. They seem to me, at least on this viewing, as the undigested fragments of the film’s ideological construction that unintentionally reveal the truth of its world view.
All that aside, I should also mention that the film is imaginatively shot, snappily edited, and a ton of utterly reprehensible fun. You will think more poorly of yourself for having watched it, and isn’t that just the ticket for the season?